WILLIAMSON COUNTY -- Several thousand Williamson County residents were forced to endure two lengthy power outages Wednesday. And to make matters worse, the outages just happened to occur on the coldest day of winter to date as temperatures pretty much stayed in the single digits.
"No outage is acceptable to our customers, or to us," said Ameren spokesman Brian Bretsch. "Our No. 1 goal (in the event of an outage) is always to get the power restored as quickly and safely as we can. Many of our linemen live in the region and take great pride in what they do. Working in the cold Wednesday was difficult, but they did their job and did it well."
Bretsch said Ameren responded to the first outage at 7:23 a.m. Wednesday. The disruption in service affected mostly Carterville residents and businesses receiving power from the East Herrin substation. About 5,200 customers were affected altogether. Power was fully restored by about 1:05 p.m.
Combined with the cold temperatures, both the Unit 5 school district and John A. Logan College closed for the day.
A second power outage occurred at approximately 9:30 p.m. Wednesday and was not fixed until about 3:20 a.m. Thursday. This outage again affected Carterville, as well as pockets of Energy and Herrin residents.
In each case, Bretsch said, workers responded first to the substation in an attempt to find the root of the problem.
"We know it was an equipment problem and we know the outage was caused by the cold weather, but we don't yet know how it happened, That's what we're trying to figure out now."
Bretsch said Ameren enlisted the aid of a helicopter Thursday to get a bird's-eye view of the power lines up and down the system in west Williamson County. The second outage affected 6,400 customers.
Carterville was the community hit the hardest by the outages. Almost the entire community was impacted as were all businesses downtown and on the south end of town.
Mayor Brad Robinson said the biggest problem with Wednesday's outages beyond the obvious loss of power to heat homes and businesses was that it disrupted the city's water supply.
"It revealed a weakness in our system," the mayor said, explaining that electric heaters inside the boxes that house the intricate gauges and electronic innerworkings that communicate with the pumps at the water tower were not connected to one another and therefore shut down.
"Depending on where you are in our water distribution system, you could have been without water anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes, and we had to issue a boil order because of that," Robinson said.
The mayor said inaccurate signals were being sent to the pumps that the water tower was full and overflowing when in fact it was empty. The problem was soon fixed, and when the second power outage occurred in the evening, there were no water issues to report.
Robinson said he appreciated Ameren's quick response to fix the outages.
"The only problem I had with Ameren was not having a timeline of some sort that we (city officials) could relay to our residents when they called or through social media. I understand why they didn't give us a timeline -- they didn't know what the problem was -- but we just needed something we could pass along so that people could decide whether they wanted to wait things out at home or seek alternate shelter."
The mayor said the city's fire department is the designated warming center in the community. Only one family of three took advantage.